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Suono e Significato: On Being Translated into Italian

By Sandra Marchetti

While completing my MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, I took a wonderful course with Jennifer Atkinson entitled, “Poetry in Translation.” I loved reading about how various translators worked, and the rationales behind their linguistic decisions. I even produced a few semi-competent translations of the French Great War poet Guillaume Apollinaire. My French language skills were rusty at best: I labored over those pages with a huge French-to-English dictionary. In my desperate attempt to recreate the emotional awareness of Apollinaire, I took his metacognitive surrealism to a level of Chekhov-imbued flamboyance. Blood and youthful angst spattered each page.

Needless to say, when I brought my translations to workshop, I was disappointed to hear that they resembled Robert Lowell’s collection, Imitations. This book contains Lowell’s self-described “loose” or “idiosyncratic translations” of various European classical and modern poets, and was met with critical disdain when it was published in 1961. Lowell, as translator, lacked the ability to “walk on a thin line all the time and…feel comfortable there,” my translator, Alessandra Bava, told me later. Unfortunately, my translations also resembled a drunk attempting to walk a broken yellow line. However, I enjoyed the process and found some of my favorite poets, including Apollinaire and Octavio Paz, through the words of their translators. The class taught me an abiding respect for this painstaking yet beautiful art.

Thus, six years later, I was bowled over when Bava, an Italian poet and translator living in Rome, mentioned that she would like to translate some of my poems into her native language. It is a long-range goal for many writers, including myself, to have their work translated. It was even more special for me to be translated into Italian, because my father’s family is entirely Italian, and some members still speak the language. Additionally, my husband and I had just visited the country on our honeymoon. Alessandra found me months earlier through our mutual friend, Allie Marini Batts, a truly gracious literary citizen and writer. Allie artfully convinced her to buy my most recent letterpress book, A Detail in the Landscape, in which two of the poems Alessandra would later translate appeared.

Alessandra and I then began a literary correspondence online. Our notes resembled scenes from “You’ve Got Mail.” I would open my inbox in the morning with glee to find little notes on poetry that she had typed hours before in Rome. When Alessandra informed me that she would be embarking on a project translating contemporary American women poets for the Italian literary magazine, Patria Letteratura, I wanted in. Fortunately, she was a few steps ahead, and had already picked two poems of mine she wished to translate, “By Degrees” and “Sur l’herbe.” She very generously suggested I choose a third, and after much hemming and hawing, I picked “One Secret,” an off-kilter sonnet. We joked that the process might be quite acrobatic, as I often make up words in my poems, or “verb” nouns and adjectives. For example, “One Secret” says “I neat my breath to yours” in English, which Alessandra aptly translated, by way of context clues and my assurances, into “Accordo il mio respiro al tuo.” This equates to “I tune my breath to yours.”

After I sent Alessandra my poems, I didn’t hear from her for a week or so. She told me later that her typical translation process begins by reading a poem several times in order to enter its linguistic and syntactical world. Only after repeated reading does she attempt a draft in Italian, and at least a few distinct drafts are produced. She described herself as an interpreter of impression and emotion, adding, “If I am not happy with a translation, I will let it ‘decant’ a little longer.” After her translations of my poems had time to “decant,” she asked me specific questions regarding the language that I used, in the hopes that she could “maintain the alliterative quality and the rhythm.”

Alessandra messaged me about my phrase “lock-swift symmetry,” for example, which was employed to describe geese flying in “By Degrees.” I stared at the screen. It sounded nice, but was any meaning conveyed? These Q &A’s proved a valuable self-examination tool. I replied: “I think I meant that [one] goose angled into the ‘flying V’ quickly and in symmetry with the others, like a lock clicking into place.” Alessandra translated the line to “simmetria a chiusura rapida,” or loosely, the “symmetry of fast closing.” We had a few exchanges like this throughout the translation process and these “double-checks” found me interrogating poems that had already seen dozens of revisions. They also provided me with a new appreciation of how difficult it must be to translate the dead.

Alessandra was kind enough to send me recordings of herself reading the translations around the same time that the text went live at Patria Letteratura. As glorious as it felt to be translated, I was frustrated that I couldn’t understand the Italian version of my work. Her audio gave me a new way to experience the translations. Alessandra’s voice on these recordings seemed to be full of love and longing. The poems took on a melancholy tinge, one I was not expecting, but that nevertheless is present in the original pieces. Her incantatory tone demonstrated a deep understanding of the work; I have no doubt she knows the poems as well as I do now. The translations, when read aloud, are incredibly rhythmic, though the rhythms sometimes vary from those in the originals. Rhyme, in places, is perhaps enhanced because Italian is a Romance language. Hearing near-cognates in lines like “una landa selvaggia già identificata” for “in wilderness already named,” and sensing the heartbreaking metronome preserved within “sound and meaning” when exchanged for the phrase “suono e significato,” were the greatest highlights though, because for a minute I knew the tongue as if it were mine, and it was.  

Published Jan 13, 2015   Copyright 2015 Sandra Marchetti

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